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French Secretary of State for the Sea Hervé Berville, U.S. actress and activist Jane Fonda and Ocean and Polar advisor with Greenpeace Laura Meller attend a news conference on the High Seas Treaty, at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Feb. 21.ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

A landmark marine treaty is good news for the world’s oceans, but many details remain to be ironed out, including how potential wealth derived from ocean sources can be more equitably shared and how protected areas can be monitored to ensure they are more than mere lines on a map, ocean researchers and advocacy groups say.

The legal framework, announced Saturday at United Nations headquarters in New York, is the result of multi-country talks that began in 2004. The so-called “High Seas Treaty” would allow for the creation of marine protected areas in the high seas – waters that are outside any country’s territory. It would help meet a global commitment to protect biodiversity in 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030.

UN treaty to protect high seas

Countries have reached a landmark agreement to put 30 per cent

of international waters into protected areas by 2030

High seas

International waters

where all countries can fish,

navigate and do research

Exclusive Economic Zones

Where coastal countries have

jurisdiction over resources up to

370 km from shore

Arctic Ocean

Atlantic

Ocean

Pacific

Ocean

Indian

Ocean

Southern Ocean

Area covered by international waters

64%

of world’s

oceans

45%

of Earth’s

surface

1.2%

currently

protected

graphic news, Sources: BBC, IUCN, Marine Regions

UN treaty to protect high seas

Countries have reached a landmark agreement to put 30 per cent

of international waters into protected areas by 2030

High seas

International waters

where all countries can fish,

navigate and do research

Exclusive Economic Zones

Where coastal countries have

jurisdiction over resources up to

370 km from shore

Arctic Ocean

Atlantic

Ocean

Pacific

Ocean

Indian

Ocean

Southern Ocean

Area covered by international waters

64%

of world’s

oceans

45%

of Earth’s

surface

1.2%

currently

protected

graphic news, Sources: BBC, IUCN, Marine Regions

UN treaty to protect high seas

Countries have reached a landmark agreement to put 30 per cent

of international waters into protected areas by 2030

High seas

International waters where all countries

can fish, navigate and do research

Exclusive Economic Zones

Where coastal countries have jurisdiction over

resources up to 370 km from shore

Arctic Ocean

Atlantic

Ocean

Pacific

Ocean

Indian

Ocean

Southern Ocean

Area covered by international waters

64%

of world’s

oceans

45%

of Earth’s

surface

1.2%

currently

protected

graphic news, Sources: BBC, IUCN, Marine Regions

The treaty would also put more money into marine conservation and regulate access to and use of marine genetic resources. Those include sponges, algae or other marine life, which can be used to produce medicines, cosmetics or other substances.

The high seas amount to nearly half of the Earth’s surface, and they are currently governed by a patchwork of treaties and regulations.

If the new treaty is ratified by member states, it would provide countries, for the first time, with a legally binding mechanism for conserving species and ecosystems in international waters, and for managing activities that could negatively affect ocean life.

Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist at the University of British Columbia, said the treaty reflects growing recognition of the potential uses of marine resources in manufacturing, fashion and pharmaceuticals, as well as the need for international co-operation to safeguard ocean ecosystems.

But he said he foresees challenges in putting some measures in the treaty into practice, including environmental assessments for potential marine activities, such as deep-sea mining.

“What I fear most is the practice. Who is going to make sure that it is a proper assessment, and that they are taking all that matters into account?” Dr. Sumaila said. He has written extensively on high-seas fishing and favours a ban on the practice.

The new treaty does not contemplate a ban on high-seas fishing, but would create marine protected areas, something Dr. Sumaila considers a win. Marine protected areas generally include restrictions on activities such as fishing and shipping.

Currently, only 1.8 per cent of the high seas are closed to fishing. If the treaty gets that figure to 30 per cent, that would be a major improvement, he said.

He added that the new treaty’s inclusion of genetic resources makes it more likely that developing countries will benefit if, for example, a pharmaceutical company develops a successful new drug from ocean resources sourced beyond national jurisdictions.

“It’s more likely to happen. But will it really happen? The practicality is still a problem, in ensuring that goal of sharing,” he said.

Environmental groups urged countries to ratify the treaty as quickly as possible.

“The clock is still ticking to deliver 30 by 30,” Laura Meller, an oceans campaigner with Greenpeace Nordic, said in a statement. She was referencing COP15, a biodiversity conference held in December in Montreal that ended with a milestone agreement to protect 30 per cent of the planet from biodiversity loss by 2030.

“We have half a decade left, and we can’t be complacent,” Ms. Meller added.

Environmental groups see the treaty as a critical step toward protecting waters that face a host of challenges, including plastic waste, invasive species and warming temperatures.

Many countries, including Canada, are looking for ways to bolster their so-called “blue economies,” which means using marine resources to create jobs and economic opportunities while protecting ocean health. One in five Canadians live in coastal communities, and the country’s ocean industries generate more than $30-billion a year, the federal government said in an update last year.

The government launched a public engagement process for a blue economy strategy in 2021, and released an interim report in March, 2022. In December, 2022, it launched a regulatory review to look at issues including fishing practices and marine renewable energy. The engagement period will end on March 17.

Globally, some companies are eyeing ocean minerals for deep-sea mining, a prospect viewed with alarm by environmental groups, which worry mining could harm marine animals and ecosystems.

In a joint statement in February, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and Fisheries Minister Joyce Murray effectively put a moratorium on deep-sea mining in Canadian territorial waters. They said Canada does not currently have a domestic legal framework that would permit that type of mining, and that the country would not authorize it in the absence of regulation.

MiningWatch Canada, an environmental advocacy group, argued that measure didn’t go far enough and urged the government to call for a deep-sea mining moratorium in international waters.

In an e-mail Monday, MiningWatch Canada research co-ordinator Catherine Coumans said it’s not yet clear how the treaty will affect deep-sea mining.

“While some aspects of its higher level aspirations around transparency, data sharing, stopping biodiversity loss/species protection will likely be useful in arguing against mining of the deep seabed, the hard goal of 30 per cent of the high seas protected by 2030 leaves a lot of room for deep seabed mining to continue,” she said.

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